"What a confusing country we live in": Michael Shannon on his gun violence movie "Eric LaRue"

Michael Shannon spoke to Salon about directing "Eric LaRue," starring Judy Greer as a mom whose son shot classmates

Published June 10, 2023 12:59PM (EDT)

US actor Michael Shannon unveils a beach cabin marked with his name on the Promenade des Planches during the 47th Deauville US Film Festival in Deauville, western France, on September 8, 2021. (LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)
US actor Michael Shannon unveils a beach cabin marked with his name on the Promenade des Planches during the 47th Deauville US Film Festival in Deauville, western France, on September 8, 2021. (LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Michael Shannon goes behind the camera to direct his auspicious first feature, "Eric LaRue," which receives its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Based on Brett Neveu's play, this topical drama depicts the impact of gun violence through the experiences of Janice (Judy Greer), who is "having a hard time." Her son Eric (Nation Sage Henrikson) is incarcerated for shooting and killing three of his classmates and she is trying to process the aftershocks.

"For me it's not so much why he did it, but where did he come from?"

Shannon deliberately sits with his characters as his film explores the issues of guilt, shame, and the possibility of redemption. This is also a story steeped in faith; Janice's husband, Ron (Alexander Skarsgård) has embraced religion to salve his pain, and Janice is asked by her pastor, Steve Calhan (Paul Sparks), to meet with the mothers of the boys her son killed. Even as Janice tries to return to work, she encounters challenges that test her. These scenes are powerful, but it is a riveting 15-minute scene, late in "Eric LaRue," where Janice visits her son in prison, that provides the film with its most emotional moment. 

Shannon's talents as an actor — he will next be seen as General Zod in "The Flash" opening June 16, and recently portrayed George Jones in the TV series, "George & Tammy" — may be why he showcases his actors so well. Greer, in a non-comic role, is both tough and fragile here, digging deep into Janice's pain, as when she watches her husband laugh at something on TV. In contrast, Alexander Skarsgård gives a crafty performance. He seems almost naïve, but a breakdown he has in one scene is gripping. 

Shannon frames each scene in his modest film with care, freighting many of his shots through doors and windows with meaning. The filmmaker chatted with Salon about making "Eric Larue."

Where did you see or read this play and decide this is the film I want to direct? What about it spoke to you that you had to make this film.

My first encounter with "Eric Larue" was back in 2002. I am a member of a theater company in Chicago, and we did this play. I wasn't directly involved, but I found it to be a perplexing situation that this woman was in. She was dealing with the aftermath of what her son had done, at the same time, she was not able to stop loving him, which was an intriguing dilemma. Years later, Brett asked me to take a look at the screenplay, and it still had this haunting power. I felt he effectively opened it up, adding some new characters and locations. The play is very minimal and spare. 

My basic premise with this film, as much as it concerns a mother coping with her son's crimes, it is also about what a confusing f**king country we live in. This film was an opportunity to explore and present it in a way I found satisfying. 

You have made a very deliberate film that leans into the silence. We feel all the emotions because you let us sit with the characters. Can you talk about your approach to telling this story? 

That's my philosophy about storytelling, which may come as a shock to people who think of me as an intimidating presence. As someone watching something, I don't want to be hit over the head. Any time I feel like I am being manipulated or prodded or curated in any way, shape or form, I lose interest. It was important that I do not do this to my actors or my audience. I did not want to lead people to a particular response. I wanted these people to live and breathe in front of the camera.  

Eric LaRueJudy Greer in "Eric LaRue" (Dana Hawley)

I really want to talk about the gripping 15-minute scene between Eric and Janice, which was extremely powerful. Can you talk about the mother and son dynamic? 

Janice is so scared about what she feels and thinks. Eric has the benefit of being contained in a space. He is not making any choices. As awful as I imagine it would be to be in prison, it removes the angst of trying to formulate your own existence. Janice wakes up and has to figure out where to go and who to be. Eric accepts that he did something terrible, and I wanted to put that across. The whole film leads up to that scene. 

The film suggests that one reason Eric killed his classmates was because he was bullied. The film also suggests that the sins of his parents contributed to his criminal behavior — an argument one of the victim's mothers makes. I mention these points because your tone is not one of judgment. You give viewers things to consider. What Eric says about his crime is as valid as what is said about him. Thoughts?

"It's hard to know what actual healing is."

For me it's not so much why he did it, but where did he come from? He came from Janice and Ron. And where did Janice and Ron come from? They come from this society and this culture. It goes back to my basic, original premise: this country is very confusing. It's hard to live here and not get your mind all tangled up in knots. The American political systems, educational systems, and religious systems are riddled with contradictions, confusion and false narratives. This confusion leads to more and more confusion and violence and hardship. We have to try and find a way to unify; otherwise, the country is going to go insane.

"Eric Larue" also touches on the topic of mental health, from Eric saying he felt "out of control in my mind" to the burden Janice feels and the denial Ron has. We are in a time where there is increased awareness about mental wellbeing. Can you talk about this topic?

My feelings about mental health have always been complex. It's a hard thing to quantify or qualify what is actually mentally healthy. Some people think it is about trying to be normal, but what is normal? One indication that you are healthy is that you don't have a desire to harm other people or yourself. Eric is very aware of that in himself, and he is trying to address it. Janice has never felt actualized as a human being. She loves Eric, but she was unprepared for being a mother. She is someone who never understood her place in the world. If that's your mother, that is probably going to lead to some trouble down the road.

The film also talks about healing. Yet the characters, even some of the victims' mothers, don't find "closure." Is healing after such a tragedy possible? 

It's hard to know what actual healing is. Is the idea to forget about what happened and just move on? Forgive Eric and move on? If you look at Ron's experience, it alternates between authentic and inauthentic. I want the audience to come to their own conclusions on all fronts. Janice, more than anyone else, is trying to encompass the totality of what happened in a very specific and measured way. She is not looking for an easy way out. Healing is elusive to all of us. It's something we all long for even if we haven't been through something this extreme. So many people that come up with so many ways of doing it, I don't know that I personally found the way that healing works for me.

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You have long been an actor and continue to work in various projects, such as the upcoming DC film, "The Flash" which is light years away from "Eric Larue." Do you have plans to continue to work behind the camera, or make "The Flash" so you could make "Eric Larue"? 

They didn't have anything to do with one another. I did "The Flash" because Andy [Muschietti, the director] said "I need Zod in the movie." "Eric Larue" moved me so much. I can't tell you how important I think this story is. I think this film is really about our culture right now and a lot of things that are happening in our country. Will I direct another film? I don't know. I have to find material that moved me to the extent that this did.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Eric Larue Gun Violence Guns Interview Judy Greer Michael Shannon Movies School Shooting Tribeca Film Festival